- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

Before there was the crumbling monstrosity known as Veterans Stadium, there was the crumbling monstrosity known as Shibe Park. The Philadelphia Eagles played and practiced there in their early days. The baseball A's called it home, too. Jack Ferrante, an Eagles end in the '40s, once threatened, jokingly, to quit the team because "for seven years I've had the same locker in Shibe Park, and while I'm dressing a drop of water will hit me in the head every 20 seconds from a dripping pipe. It's worn a bald spot and is making me goofy."

(To which coach Greasy Neale replied, "That explains everything. He's either too lazy or too dumb to move over one foot.")

One night an Eagles workout at the ballpark was canceled because of rats.

That's right, rats.

Ernie Steele, another player from that era, told me so. "President Roosevelt had been there the night before," he explained, "and they put all this straw on the field and up on the stage to keep him warm. Well, they pushed the straw up by the [stadium] walls so we could practice, and when they turned the lights on holy cow! You've never seen anything like it. The rats, shoot, they were jumping five feet in the air. I went in the locker room, and when Greasy came in to get me I told him, 'I'm not going back out there.' Guys were throwing footballs at 'em and oh, man I've never seen so many rats. So we didn't practice."

It has always been thus for the Eagles. You say their preseason game against the Ravens got called off Monday night because of an unplayable field? Heck, that's nothing. Back in 1939, Philly owner Bert Bell postponed the season opener because of threatening weather. ("A dark cloud passed over the sky somewhere north of Manayunk," the Evening Bulletin cracked.) The real reason for the postponement: Bell hadn't sold enough tickets to make it worth his while to play.

Bill Lyon of the Philadelphia Inquirer called the Ravens debacle "another night of civic shame." Eagles fans sure have had their share of those. There was the time in the '30s, for instance, that Bell signed a graduate of Sing Sing named Edwin "Alabama" Pitts, a convicted robber who had become an athletic legend in and around the upstate New York prison. Pitts drew some fans maybe they were hoping he'd hold up the box office but he wasn't a pro football player. His career lasted only four games.

His final appearance was in a 39-0 loss to the Bears in Philadelphia. Now that was a day of civic shame. As the Chicago Tribune reported: "The Bears might have scored 41 points had they not waived the chance to kick the extra point after the last two touchdowns. After the first three tries fans in the bleachers refused to return the ball. Fearing the supply of footballs might run out, the Chicagoans decided not to try for the extra point."

The following year, in the first-ever NFL Draft, Bell selected nine players. None of them ever played for Philadelphia (or for any other team in the league, for that matter). It's a wonder, really, that the Eagles didn't just slink out of town at some point especially after what happened on Halloween night, 1940. That was when they became the last NFL club to lose to a minor league team. The Wilmington (Del.) Clippers clipped them 16-14 thanks to three missed field goal tries by the Eagles in the last quarter.

"Several Clippers are nursing bumps and bruises incurred against the Eagles," the Wilmington Journal gloated afterward, "but none serious enough to keep them from playing [in the next game]."

So it shouldn't surprise anyone that the Veterans Stadium grounds crew dropped the ball the other night, couldn't get the new turf field into suitable playing condition. This, after all, is Philadelphia. The Eagles have been a running soap opera in the NFL for 69 years. If they aren't going bust late in their '48 championship season and asking the league to pick up their payroll they're giving Joe Kuharich a 15-year contract or trading Sonny Jurgensen for Norm Snead.

"I'll never forget my first practice session with the Eagles [in 1943]," Al Wistert says. "We were out at St. Joseph's College on this field behind a gas station, and the station used the 'field' as a dumping area for all its discarded oil cans and stuff. The coaches are late, and there's [Hall of Famer] Bill Hewitt sitting on a rock or maybe it was an old piece of sidewalk that had been broken up and dumped there smoking a cigarette, surrounded by weeds that are about three feet high.

"The locker room had lockers so narrow I could barely fit my size 14 shoes in them. There were probably three 60-watt light bulbs hanging by cords from the ceiling and three showerheads in the shower. After practice, the equipment manager wouldn't give me new sweat clothes or a new undershirt or even a new jock to wear the next day. I had to take my stuff home and wash it myself or have my wife wash it.

"So that was my first day with the Philadelphia Eagles. Now that's a great start, isn't it?"

About as great as the one the Eagles have gotten off to this season. Times sure have changed, haven't they?

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